On October 11, the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) and the Perry World Househosted a symposium titled “North Korea: Bargaining in the Shadow of Armed Conflict.” The featured panelists at the keynote included Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and ambassador to the United Nations, and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times.
Penn Law professor and CERL Director Claire Finkelstein moderated the discussion concerning the nature of the North Korean threat and strategies the U.S. might employ. The event was co-sponsored by the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics, the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, and the Center for East Asian Studies
Based on his eight trips to North Korea, former Governor Richardson explained that the North Koreans don’t negotiate in the same way that Americans do. Saving face is a big part of their culture, he stated. “It’s all a cult of personality.”
When asked what the North Koreans wanted when they would contact Richardson and how he approached the dialogue, he said, “I always believe that you talk to the worst kinds of people. That has been my assumption … but you’ve got to have mutual respect for each other.” He would try to meet with the North Korean ambassador every two months, and he advocated for engaging members of the North Korean military.
“Everybody thinks the military are the hardliners. I think differently … I think that’s a path forward through the military that we have not explored.”
Finkelstein then asked about the risk that the United States is currently facing with North Korea. She cited some experts who estimate that there is a ten percent chance of nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula and a 30 to 40 percent chance of all-out, conventional war.
Sanger thought those numbers sounded about right. However, he noted that the United States and North Korea have already been engaged in a “persistent cyber conflict.”
He doubted that North Korea would willingly launch a nuclear weapon though because “they know what would happen thereafter.” He was concerned about the possibility of regime collapse.
“We don’t know exactly what protections they have on their nuclear weapons … but I could imagine a situation in which a rogue North Korean military official decided that if the regime is going to go down, he’s going to bring everyone down with him.”
Richardson agreed that all-out war and nuclear conflict on the peninsula were quite unlikely, but he thought the biggest unpredictability is “our two leaders.”
When asked whether they thought that there is a method to the madness in the Trump administration’s handling of North Korea, Richardson and Sanger agreed that there is no method.
However, Richardson was optimistic about the people advising Trump.
“A lot of good people are restraining the president,” he stated.
They also agreed that the nuclear codes shouldn’t be kept away from Trump.
“There is no legal way for a Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or anyone else in the command line to defy a presidential order to launch nuclear weapons,” Sanger explained. “They can try to slow walk it. They can pretend they didn’t have it on time. They can spend a lot of time trying to authenticate it … but there is no legal basis by which they can turn it down.”
Both Richardson and Sanger thought the Trump administration should be given some credit though on their progress with North Korea. Specifically, they thought that putting pressure on China and installing sanctions on North Korea were helpful measures.
Richardson thought that the best way to decrease tensions with North Korea in the short term would be through diplomacy.
“I think the answer is a freeze for the short term,” Richardson stated. “It’s imperfect. In exchange for a dialogue, the United States stops some military exercises… the North Koreans stop testing for like 60 days, no tests, no missile activity.”